July 11, 2009
Lifetime Fitness Olympic
The change of racing to include more frequent travels encouraged me to be more creative in how to get Hayes and Caroline involved in the races to them decide if they like to participate instead of only watching my races. They helped planned some of them. Hayes, my oldest daughter, enjoys traveling. We enjoy each other’s companionship and we both like fun. I thrive in the environment of being challenged at new races. She thrives on the excitement of competitive races in new places. We both like to get each other to smile and laugh. We jointly agreed this father-daughter trip to the Twin Cities in Minnesota would be an opportunity for her to develop some independence in a large setting. My mantra of “I’m choosing to be a competitor instead of a spectator,” would not fit for her in this situation. Instead, her personalized mantra was “I’m choosing to be more independent”.
Over the past couple of years Hayes participated in many activities and sports through Fox Valley (Illinois) Special Recreation and in the Illinois Special Olympics organization. She competed in swimming, basketball, volleyball, skiing, soccer, and softball. Some of the competitors live for their events. Others participate for companionship and the social aspect. The spectators are made up of family and friends. These events are put on by both paid resources and volunteers. Lots of volunteers. Similarities exist in what is required to put on these events and triathlons. Hayes enjoyed her participation because of volunteers. Ironically she chose to give back to sports and to adults as a volunteer for the Lifetime Fitness Olympic Distance Triathlon to ensure participants enjoyed their race and to show her parents she could develop independence.
The race was big. Over 1,100 competitors with a mix of professionals, elite age groupers, a wide range of experienced triathletes, and many first timers. This triathlon earned elite status because its inaugural race offered a large professional purse with handicapped times for males and females. This format generated publicity for Lifetime and triathloning. The race was also the first stop in the 2009 Toyota Cup Challenge Series which drew people from across the United States.
Nothing like being a clueless father of almost three years; however, I was attuned to realize the value of bonding with a special child, at an early age. I grasped early on disabilities were not best defined in a book, or by doctors, or by social guidelines, but by people with them. Some people set limits to their disabilities. Others stretched their abilities with the support of parents, caretakers, and of people who were better at exploring possibilities than setting limitations. Triathletes too are pushing their capabilities as Hayes would witness first hand at the finish line of the pro racers along the shores of Lake Nokomis.
During the car journey, we talked, listened to music, and she enjoyed a couple of movies on her portable DVD player. My adrenal glands kicked in as we entered the Twin Cities metro area. Pre-race anxiety mixed with lack of familiarity in where we were headed caused my adrenalin to flow a bit. We became part of the informal parade of vehicles with race bikes on their roofs, behind their trunks, and stashed in their back storage that weaved their way through traffic on I-94 to the Minneapolis Convention Center for race registration and packet pick-up. The bike was stashed in the trunk with only a small Ironman window sticker fading out on the back left side window promoting my compulsion. Other triathletes showcased their multi-thousand dollar bikes like a status trophy of our self-indulgent lifestyle. In a few short months as the weather gets colder and the leaves drop, for many in the area the mounted bikes will change over to mounted deer though still conveying a status symbol for a different type of sportsman showing their world their successful lifestyles.
I scheduled three races over the next four weekends, all high profile with high caliper competitors expected, at distances from Olympic to half iron-distance race. I ramped up workout mileage throughout June then tapered the distances while increasing speed to place well in the races. This type of training execution took planning, required discipline, and the proper race selection. The July race date was the latest in start in a season since the first year in 1986. In previous race seasons I would not have signed up for this race. Too close to two half iron-distance races put on the schedule in spring, though I learned don’t let training get in the way of a great race. Racing justified all the hours of training in the off-season.
Big city triathlons are great events for age group triathletes. We compete in lakes, oceans, or rivers where people are rarely allowed to swim. We bike on roadways where motorized vehicles rule except on race day. We run without worries of getting hit by cars, trucks, or cyclist and without worries of running over clueless tourists, tripping on leashes attached to pets, or being mugged by thugs. We eat free food provided by some top name restaurants where the bill would have cost more than our entry fee. We race alongside or at least within a progression of professionals getting better views of them than we would watching a Jumbotron with a paid ticket at other professional venues. The pros bring excitement to big city races too. It’s head-to-head competition across three sports. Many are Olympians so viewers can relate to the “as seen on TV” themes. Lifetime Fitness also offered some sustainability as part of Toyota Cup Challenge Series with pro triathletes earning points for prize money across a whole season and top amateurs earning free entry into the championship finale. This is what media likes to promote to its customers. The Lifetime Fitness Tri offered all of this and more.
On the flipside, big city triathlons suck for residents. We’re guests. We get that. Race directors, competitors, and spectators bring money and leave hundreds to thousands of dollars behind. Each of us bring personal stories for overcoming obstacles. Here’s Hayes’.
This trip gave her an opportunity to gain some independence. Hayes chose to participate as a volunteer instead of a spectator, an appropriate choice to fit her capabilities for this event. She is classified as an intellectually disabled teenager and recognizes she leads a different life than others. She also recognizes how to contribute to the betterment of others in ways that bring her enjoyment. She participates in our society. She shares stories, provides encouragement, and laughs with other people on her own terms.
“Normal people”, non-intellectually disabled people try because they think they can. Effort and experience will prove the success of their activity. Sometimes people think they cannot do things yet they get coached to learn to achieve, and given the chance, do. We as parents coach our kids, whether normal or intellectually disabled. We look for experience and expertise to fill in our knowledge gaps. We strive to provide real life situations for our kids to try, to learn, to train, to compete, to receive coaching, and to succeed.
When Hayes chose the path of volunteering neither of us knew how the experience would turn out. We recognized she needed to try to be successful and fulfill her duties and we needed to give her those opportunities. She served as a race volunteer at the finish line beside Lake Nokomis handing out water bottles and finisher towels to the exhausted triathletes.
Hayes gets excited about involvement. As a Fox Valley Special Recreation basketball player during a Special Olympic Basketball Tournament her coach walked down the bench asking players if they were ready to go back in the game. No one spoke up except Hayes. She confidently said “I’m ready to play coach. Put me back in.” Hayes showed that same “put me in coach” attitude readiness for her volunteer duties at the Lifetime Triathlon. She put herself in a position to learn, to be trained, and to be ready for the occasion. Hayes was ready to go with me and more ready in enthusiasm to be a part of the action instead of being one of the spectators.
Morning came early. We arrived near the race site while still dark though only two weeks past summer solstice. We parked in a nearby neighborhood, unloaded the bicycle using a flashlight and joined others in an informal parade of competitors walking to the transition area. Hayes was excited about volunteering. I was nervous about my racing performance outcome. We both wondered about what our pending endeavors would yield.
I racked the bike, set up my race gear, exited the transition area and met up with Hayes. Next we tracked down the Head Volunteer Coordinator, Jim Boyle. Hayes received her assignment. She listened to Jim and understood her responsibilities. We walked over to the finishing line, her assigned area, so she was familiar with the set-up. Then we hung out to get race ready.
Even though I gave up almost ten years of age to most of the field I chose to compete in the elite masters group because this wave went off much earlier in the race than the 50-54 age group, starting Wave #5 instead of Wave #15. This allowed me to observe Hayes in action and relieve her if needed.
The race started and we watched the pros go off in the water. I stretched, ran, and put on my wetsuit. Hayes walked to the start with me. I stepped in the wave queue. Hayes was on her own at that point forward. The goal was for her to find the finish line area, report for duty, and perform her assigned volunteer responsibilities. My goal was to race fast. We both agreed to greet each other next at the finish line.
Hayes found her way from the start to the finish line. Initially she met up with Jim Boyle. He bought Hayes a cup of coffee to help wake her up after her 4:30am wake-up shake from me. The irony of who was helping who was not lost on me. Hayes said two other key volunteers helped her get started. A 6’ 4” tall guy, my age with lots of energy, and a women who liked to volunteer at bigger races though she competed herself. She and her husband often traded off competing as they did in this race. Neither Hayes nor I caught their names but all were key in making Hayes’ experience a success. She shared every volunteer and athlete in the finishing area treated her with respect. Hayes also learned how much responsibility there was in being a volunteer at such a big race. She was amazed by how many racers came through the finish. Overall, she enjoyed the total experience.
The swim was in a beautiful Lake Nokomis. The course was laid out in an equilateral triangle of 500 meters per side. The water was clean and clear with some stray seaweed on the east side of the lake. We came out of the water right beside where we entered and headed to T1. Thought to myself, “I’ve now swum in 1/100 of 1% of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes”.
The bike course was beautiful. We rode alongside the Mississippi River. First on West River Road, then we crossed over the River on one bridge and biked south on East River Road and crossed back over the River. We headed back west to Lake Nokomis but kept on going for a 360 degree trip around Lake Harriet and its elegant neighborhood of old homes under a continuous canopy of deciduous trees. The streets over this part of the course were slightly rolling terrain with twisting turns allowed for brief sightings of other racers in front of me. During the whole 41 kilometer bike leg I chased a female competitor. Others passed me and I passed others but not her.
We returned to the same transition area beside Lake Nokomis. I looked for Hayes at the finish line but didn’t see her. I heard everyone there cheer loudly then focused on my two laps of running around the Lake. All flat. The run route provided great views of the lake. No shade. Lots of speed. Lots of competitors especially on the second lap as wave after wave of triathletes joined the course. The run leg was uneventful other than a couple of new blisters and some blood caused by new racing shoes and not wearing socks.
For Hayes though, she enjoyed an eventful front row seat to one of the best professional triathlon finishes ever. The top three male pros: Matty Reed, Andy Potts, and Greg Bennett were within five seconds of each other. Reed won in a time of 1:49:15.3. Potts was 2/10ths of second behind followed by Bennett. Hayes was excited when she described the finish afterwards. Few racers saw it as we were out on the course. She said everyone in the area cheered for the trio of finishers. That was the loud noise heard when starting my run leg. Following the neck and neck finish Hayes handled out water bottlers to many of the finishers over the next couple of hours. She greeted me with a bottle and a quick hug when I came across the finish line 35 minutes later.
Did a warm down jog and circled back to check in on Hayes. Thought maybe she needed to be relieved early from her volunteer duties. Turns out she didn’t. She came through as expected. She held her own and exceled. My secret confession about Hayes volunteering was I fully expected her to be herself and use her outgoing personality to engage other volunteers in conversation. Hayes utilizes the most of her Emotional Intelligence (EQ) behavior which seems to be higher than her peer group and age equivalent students in her high school. Hayes introduced me to her volunteer companion. She initiated a conversation with a fellow volunteer whose husband was on the course racing. The husband and wife team trade off by sometimes racing, sometimes volunteering, or sometimes being the support crew for the others with help from their kids. Her husband entered the Hawaii Ironman lottery and was selected for the Kona race to be held in four months. She was planning to be his support crew there. She was genuinely excited about their opportunities in October.
During a conversation with the volunteer Hayes shared her dad raced at Kona while on a family vacation there. Hayes talked about living in Bangkok. She also mentioned the Tri 50 State journey. She will tell things to people she talks with if she gets the feeling you are interested and safe to talk to about things in general. She speaks the truth or at least what she thinks is the truth or should be the truth. She thinks she is normal. She looks normal. She talks different than you think she should. Hayes’ words sound different but generally are understandable. Her grammar is off a bit. Sometimes she stutters. She repeats things. Sometimes her thoughts are not articulated as expected. Not surprisingly the volunteer questioned me politely and almost embarrassingly but wanted to be sure about Hayes’ stories of her life experiences. Once confirmed the volunteer said Hayes did great. She handed out lots of water bottles to some tired, sweaty, and generally happy finishers. Hayes is a positive person who pulls this out of others in how they treat her. The volunteer was a nice and thoughtful person in return pulled out the best of Hayes in her first step into independence from her parents at a race.
In an ironic twist of life unknowing people will approach Hayes thinking she is normal. Once the conversation starts they realize the encounter did not match their initial expectations, however they continue the conversation out of politeness, curiosity, sympathy, or as naturally of another variation of personality. Me however, I’m a conversation stopper when I mention to co-workers or others my kids are intellectually disabled. People will look down at their food, stare at a TV, pull out their cell phones or some other distraction to immediately stop a conversation until a new, more neutral subject comes up. They act like the previous topic never was discussed and it never will be again in the future. People are more comfortable talking to her than about her. I’m more guarded about Hayes than Hayes is herself. Hayes is one of the most comfortable people in what her personality is, what she has to offer and her experiences in life. She’s herself with others. Always. Consistently.
The journey along the route to the destination was as important as the destination itself. The trip allowed me to reflect about watching and participating in Hayes’ development growing up. I once read all kids are God’s children, parents only watch over them until they grow up and move out on their own. Hayes and Caroline may stick around with Chris and me longer than some of their other peers. We’re encouraged though seeing the potential of individuality and responsibility that developed in Hayes. We also look forward to similar gains from Caroline in time. After returning home Sunday night I sent Jim Boyle an e-mail thanking him and the entire race crew of volunteers in supporting Hayes and letting her gain some confidence and grow as an individual.
When writing this article I further reflected on my life. How quickly I grew from kid to teenager to graduate to adult to husband to parent. How quickly things changed. I’m now working in the Twin cities area. At work employees participated in a one day first-aid training course. Almost everything I learned about first-aid treatment for a Boy Scout Merit Badge was now everything you don’t want to do for treatment today. Our trainer told us numerous times when faced with a medical urgency, do something as most people will freeze. Sure enough, a few weeks after training, a person in the office was going too fast around a corner and tripped over an electrical cord that should not have been there. The person was flat on the floor in pain. Everyone, and I mean everyone stood there. No action. No engagement. No relief to the person. People watched. Either because they didn’t know what to do or didn’t have the confidence to do it, so they watched.
I encourage you to gain knowledge and confidence and pass the skills on to others. Get engaged with activities of others. Do what you enjoy with others, your kids, your family, your friends, your training partners, your co-workers, fellow students and teammates. Give others the opportunity to gain independence at a race, a walk, in school, at a church fundraiser event, for work, at a talent competition, or some other events. Let them grow as an individual in the role as a supporter or leader, whatever they can handle, as early as they can handle the responsibility. Teach them the skills and give them the opportunity to do something great within their lifetime. Let them perform without stereo-typed limitations. Let them learn who they are and what they are capable of doing instead of telling them of unproven limitations of untested capabilities.
Also, get involved with people that require special needs. Don’t watch, engage. At a previous employer one of my co-workers asked me the ages of my kids. I told them Hayes recently turned 17. They ribbed me about her getting her driver’s license. I told them she would not get one. That she was a special needs kid, intellectually disabled. Our discussion went silent. They looked down in their beers and quickly became interested in what was on the television. Realize injured people and intellectually disabled people are not elephants in the room. Engage with both of them to live a more fulfilled, robust life.
Everyone wants to do something amazing. We need to give people an opportunity. Hayes chose to volunteer. She said she was ready to participate. Jim Boyle and his crew agreed and gave her a chance. Readers, parents, coaches, leaders, managers, triathletes and everybody; give yourself a chance to do something amazing. Give others a chance to do something amazing. Coach, teach, assign, participate, develop, volunteer, try, and donate for the betterment of people across the developmental spectrum.
For days afterwards Hayes enjoyed telling others about her experience of volunteering at this triathlon. She smiled while gesturing with her arms the closeness of the finish. She always shared how exciting the finish was watching the three guys racing side by side. How the whole crowd cheered them on. And she always add in, “Oh yea, my dad raced too…”
These guys ran as fast as they could. Side by side. All the way to the finish. Both collapsed at the end. Another guy right behind them. This is what Hayes remembered. I’m not sure the real finish aligned with her memory, her story telling of the finish. It doesn’t matter. What did matter was three elite triathletes, Matty, Potts, and Bennett, gave a 100% of their abilities to go as fast as they could. They challenged themselves even more to finish first. To win. To do their best. No different than most of the 1,000+ triathletes did on race morning. No different than what Hayes did in her first independent race volunteer assignment. She did great. She smiled. She talked with others. She helped people. She challenged herself to build confidence in her independence.
Results: 43rd Overall. 3rd in Elite Masters